Work: Sheep may safely graze (Schafe können sicher weiden)
About This Work
Known in its original German diminutive as the "Jagdkantate," the full title of Johann Sebastian Bach's Cantata No. 208, "Was mir behagt," (Hunting Cantata) in English translation is "The cheerful hunt is all that gives me
pleasure." It is likely that Bach wrote the work, one of his best-know secular cantatas, in 1713, for the birthday of Duke Christian of Saxe-Weisenfels on February 23 of that year. At this point, Bach had been commissioned to stage a series of concerts at Weisenfels, and one of the works he composed especially was this, arguably his first "modern" cantata, to texts by Solomon Franck. According to Bach scholar Konrad Küscher, "courtly celebration always takes precedence over classical accuracy" in Bach's secular cantatas, "but the use of mythological names for the solo voices at least guarantees some slight dramatic action." In this allegorical setting, four solo voices are employed. The roles of Diana (a goddess associated with, among many other things, the moon and hunting) and Pales (a divinity associated with cattle), were given to sopranos; Endymion is sung by the tenor, and the bass singer takes the role of Pan. Duke Christian apparently had a great love for hunting, and Diana sings that hunting was indeed the favored recreation of gods and heroes of antiquity. Endymion appears, only to find that he is rejected by Diana, his lover, who seems interested only in the progress of the hunt; Endymion sings of his remorse in two linked arias with recitatives. As the pair join for a short dialogue, it becomes clear that Diana's action is not a deliberate attempt to spurn Endymion. Rather, as she sings, since today is the birthday of a great hunter, the Duke Christian, she has focused her energies temporarily on the celebrations, in which she is now joined by Endymion himself. A similar pattern of arias and recitatives now follows the appearance of the other principal voices, in the roles of Pan and Pales, who also join in unreserved Ducal praises, before they are joined by Diana and Endymion, who serenade the Duke in duet. Pan and Pales each sing a further aria, before the cantata ends with a rousing chorus. It is interesting to note that in this work, the principal singers were equipped with props, reflecting their allegorical and mythological characteristics. Diana, for example, carried a hunter's spear, and later on, Pan presented his shepherd's crook to the Duke, laying it at his feet, suggesting that the work was performed, originally at least, in a semi-staged fashion. This highly stylized antique characterization was further heightened by details of Bach's imaginative orchestration. A pair of hunting horns provides an obbligato part for Diana's aria, and the first aria sung by Pales features accompaniment from two recorders. This is the familiar "Schafe können sicher weiden" or "
Sheep may safely graze," the subtext of which was designed to show the Duke's beneficence and kindness to his subjects. Certain numbers found their way into later cantatas by Bach, and, as Küscher concludes, "the Hunt cantata was an example of Bach's early vocal music, that he was pleased to draw on throughout his further career."
- Michael Jameson
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